Monday, November 28, 2011

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist

A Brief History of Angelic Aces
For most of the franchise’s 51-year history, the Angels have had a clear staff ace—a pitcher who, if not always one of the best in the league, was clearly the top pitcher on the team. During the first half of the 60s it was Dean Chance who, while only playing a bit over five years for the Angels from his first five games in 1961 through 1966, compiled a 2.83 ERA during that span and a Cy Young Award in 1964 when he led the AL with 20 wins, a 1.65 ERA, 278.1 innings, and 11 shutouts.

After Chance was traded to the Twins after the 1966 season for a couple of power hitters, a couple years passed before Andy Messersmith emerged as the ace in 1969 and pitched for the Angels through 1972, the staff being co-led by Clyde Wright who he broke out as a strong starter in 1970 at the age of 29. It was before that year during the offseason that the Angels traded aging star shortstop Jim Fregosi to the New York Mets for a package that included a young flamethrower by the name of Nolan Ryan. Fregosi had had his last great year in 1970 while Ryan was just getting started. Nolan Ryan simply was the Angels in the 70s: from 1972 to ’79 he pitched 2181.1 innings and struck out 2416 batters, also walking 1302, setting the modern era major league record for strikeouts in a single season with 383 in 1973 (everyone above that mark pitched in the 1880s).

Ryan got all of the press during the 70s, but Frank Tanana might have been a better pitcher. Between 1974 and 1978, Tanana won 82 games for the Angels; over his eight years with the Angels he won 102 games with a 3.08 ERA and 1233 strikeouts with only 422 walks in 1615.1 IP. In other words, at his height Tanana was probably a more effective pitcher than Ryan, though after an injury in 1979, Tanana was never quite able to recover and became a solid, but unspectacular mid-rotation starter. Tanana was only with the Angels for another year, though he pitched for thirteen more seasons.

From Ryan and Tanana, the mantle of staff languished for a couple years in the hands of Ken Forsch and Geoff Zahn until Mike Witt emerged. Witt was the team’s best starter for a few years in the mid-to-late 80s, but declined early in his late 20s and was out of baseball at the age of 30. After Witt, a series of excellent starters vied for the staff ace role including Bert Blyleven, Kirk McCaskill, and Jim Abbott. But starting in the late 80s and going all the way through to 1999, the Angels staff was led by one man: Chuck Finley, the all-time franchise leader in innings pitched with 2675 (for context, number two is Nolan Ryan with 2181.1; John Lackey is fifth with 1501, and Jered Weaver is just outside of the top ten with 1131.2), wins (165) and losses (140). Finley may not have been a great pitcher—although he had a few great years—but he was good to very good for over a decade, and the face of not only the pitching staff but, along with Tim Salmon, the Angels team during the trials and tribulations of the 90s.

After Finley left in 1999, the Angels staff didn’t have a true leader until Jarrod Washburn established himself in 2001. Washburn was the staff ace in 2002 with a career year (18-6, 3.15 ERA, 4.5 WAR, and 4th in AL Cy Young voting) but after that settled in as a #3-4 starter. 2002 was also the year that the next leader of the rotation appeared, a 23-year old rookie by the name of John Lackey who pitched strongly in the second half and won the hearts of Angels by pitching—and winning—the seventh game of the World Series.

John Lackey was the new Chuck Finley – not a great pitcher, but a very good one. Lackey’s best year was 2007 when he finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting, with a 19-9 record and an AL-leading 3.01 ERA. Over his time as an Angel, Lackey led a rotation that included Kelvim Escobar, Bartolo Colon, and homegrown pitchers Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, and Joe Saunders. Colon even won the AL Cy Young in 2005, although it may have been one of the worst choices in recent history; according to Fangraphs, Colon was 5th in the AL in WAR at 4.5 and well behind league leader Johan Santana’s 7.6.

After Lackey’s career year in 2007, he battled injury but largely remained effective over the next two years in 51 starts. When hit free agency after 2009, the Angels decided to let him go; or rather, their within-season offer was well outbid by the Red Sox, who inked him for 5 years and $80 million, which Lackey hasn’t come close to earning in his first two years (and will miss much or all of his third year due to Tommy John surgery).
Since Lackey’s departure, the starting rotation has been led by Jered Weaver who, over the last two years, has been about as good a pitcher as Lackey and Finley were at their best. In those two years, Weaver has produced an 11.5 WAR—7th in the major leagues—won 31 games, pitched over 450 innings, struck out over 400 batters, had a 2.70 ERA, and finished 5th and 2nd in AL Cy Young voting. The Angels rewarded him with a relatively club-friendly five-year, $85 million extension that will keep him an Angel through the 2016 season.

So the progression of Angel aces is relatively unbroken, with the torch being passed from one to the other with few gaps in-between: Dean Chance, Andy Messersmith, Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana, Mike Witt, Chuck Finley, John Lackey, and Jered Weaver, with honorable mentions in Clyde Wright, Bert Blyleven, Jim Abbott, Mark Langston, Jarrod Washburn, Bartolo Colon, and now Dan Haren.

2011 – A (Potentially) Great Staff
Going into 2011, after the team’s first losing season since 2003, the Angels knew they had one clear strength: their starting rotation. Staff ace Jered Weaver had just had a breakout, career year; they now had the rare luxury of a second ace in Dan Haren, who in Tony Reagins’ finest moment as Angels GM, was brought over in a trade for Joe Saunders and a couple of minor leaguers (although one of whom, Tyler Skaggs, is an elite prospect). Weaver and Haren gave the Angels arguably the second best 1-2 combos in baseball (only Halladay and Lee were clearly better). Ervin Santana, while not re-capturing his Cy Young caliber 2008, had at least stabilized as a solid #3, with Joel Pineiro giving them another solid mid-rotation starter. The Angels even had hopes, albeit dim ones, that Scott Kazmir could find himself again and, at the least, give the Angels a solid #5 starter.

First the good: Weaver and Haren were, as promised, one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball. They won 34 games and their combined 12.0 WAR was second in the majors after Halladay and Lee’s ridiculous combined 14.9. Santana improved upon his 2010 bounce-back with an even better 2011 (although still not as good as 2008), with a 3.38 ERA, 178 strikeouts, and a 3.2 WAR. The Big Three combined for a 15.2 WAR, which was only surpassed by the Phillies’ Halladay, Lee, and Hamels (19.8 WAR) and just a hair above the Giants trio of Bumgarner, Cain, and Lincecum (15.1 WAR).

After the Big Three, things fell apart a bit. As a four-man rotation, adding in the next WAR leader Joel Pineiro (1.3), they drop behind both the Giants (17.5) and the surprising Rangers (17.3), who surpassed the Giants and had the second highest five-man rotation in baseball last year (19.6 WAR, below the Phillies’ unreal 24.8 WAR). In other words, the Angels had the second-best three man rotation last year, but the fourth best four-man or five-man rotation. That’s still very good, but it shows just how front-loaded the rotation was.
Scott Kazmir was so bad in his first start (5 ER in 1.2 IP) that he was immediately sent down to AAA, where he was just as bad (producing a 17.02 ERA in five starts!!!). Rumor has it that Kazmir, still only 27, is heading to the Dominican Republic to try to remake himself. Pineiro was also bad enough to earn a demotion to the bullpen; he ended his second and likely last year with the Angels with a 5.13 ERA.

After Kazmir left, in came 21-year old Tyler Chatwood to the rescue. Chatwood had pitched only one game in AAA in 2010 entering the season and had pitched well enough in AA, but not dominated. For his first month or two Chatwood was hold his own with an ERA below 4.00, but there were warning signs: He was walking more batters than he was striking out, and it seemed like he was getting lucky quite frequently, although fans called him a “gamer” because of the fact that he was keeping the team in games. In the second half, fate caught up with Tyler and his ERA blossomed to 4.75 by season’s end.

The Angels also gave their top pitching prospect, Garret Richards, a few starts; Richards was just as unsuccessful and both pitchers look like they need at least half a season in AAA before contributing further at the major league level.

One late season revelation was former 1st round draft pick Jerome Williams, who broke into the majors with the Giants in 2003 at age 21, pitched decently for a few years, then imploded in 2006. Williams hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2007 and was signed by the Angels to a minor league contract. He pitched well in hitter-friendly Salt Lake, with a 3.91 ERA and excellent command (15 walks in 73.2 IP) in 10 starts. When he was called up by the Angels, he took advantage of his opportunity and gave the Angels 44 IP of 3.68 ERA ball. 

Crystal Ball: 2012 and Beyond
With Weaver, Haren, and Santana returning, a potentially solid Williams in the mix, and Chatwood, Richards, and Trevor Bell all available to vie for the fifth spot, the rotation will once again be a strength next year. We can expect it to be similar to last year; Weaver and/or Haren might drop a notch but should still be worth about 5 WAR each; if the Angels can get 3-4 WAR from Santana and 2+ from Williams, that’s still 15+ WAR from the top four, maybe better. The key is whether Williams can continue his strong pitching, and if at least one of Chatwood or Richards can emerge as a major league ready starter.

But let’s talk Hot Stove! Rumors have been flying that Rangers ace CJ Wilson is “very interested” in being an Angel. Yet given what he is asking for (6/$120 million) and given what current staff ace Jered Weaver is signed for (5/$85 million) it is hard to imagine that the Angels would slight their staff leader and sign Wilson for more, and it is probable that Wilson will be offered much more than Weaver’s contract by either the Rangers and/or the Yankees. Still, new GM Jerry DiPoto seems eager to make a splash and has been courting Wilson, although some have speculated that this is just a ploy to drive Wilson’s asking price up beyond Texas’s range (pun intended).

So let’s call Wilson a long-shot and move on. Numerous other solid mid-rotation starters are available on the market: From erratic but eternally-promising Edwin Jackson to veterans Hiroki Kuroda, Mark Buehrle, Aaron Harang, and Roy Oswalt. It would seem likely that the Angels go after one of these pitchers; given the number and quality of their prospects coming up (see below), they might want to offer Roy Oswalt or Aaron Harang a one-year deal, or Kuroda two years, rather than multi-year contracts to Buehrle or Jackson.
Regardless of what approach the Angels take, in 2012 they will once again have a top five rotation; if they sign Wilson they have a chance to have the second or third best rotation in baseball; if they sign a Kuroda or Oswalt, they might drop a notch but still be third or fourth; if they don’t sign anyone (which seems unlikely) there will be a few teams that will threaten to knock them out of the top five, but they’ll be close.

Arms on the Farm
It is hard to call Tyler Chatwood anything but a prospect, despite him starting 25 games last year. Chatwood reminds me of a Joe Saunders-type pitcher, although with slightly better stuff and more upside. I could see Chatwood ending up being somewhere between Saunders and Oswalt; we can hope more towards Oswalt but I think that is less likely; best-case scenario and he’s a Jarrod Washburn-caliber pitcher, a solid #3; but it is also possible that he becomes a #4-5 starter.

Garret Richards is probably the best pitching prospect in the Angels system, at least in terms of polish and likelihood of being a plus pitcher in the majors, if not in terms of upside. He put together a solid year in AA, going 12-2 with a 3.15 ERA in 21 starts, although one that looked better because of his record than his peripherals—his strikeout rate dropped from 9.4 in 2010 to 6.5 in 2011. Still, he projects to being a solid #3 starter, maybe a Lackey-esque #2 if everything breaks right.

Beyond Chatwood and Richards, there is a wealth of talent, but all with question marks. Probably the next group in terms of talent and upside is John Hellweg, Nick Maronde, and Fabio Martinez Mesa—all of whom have the potential to be at least #2 starters. Hellweg’s big question mark is his control, although it improved as the season commenced; Martinez-Mesa not only has similar control problems but may be an injury concern, having missed almost all of 2011. Fabio is probably destined for the bullpen where he could end up being a closer or high leverage reliever. Maronde’s only question mark is lack of experience: he’s got a wealth of talent but has only started eleven games in Rookie-level Orem. Keep an eye on all three players next year because they all have a chance of breaking out as top prospects.

Also worth keeping an eye on are Matt Shoemaker and Ariel Pena. While Shoemaker isn’t young at 25 next year in AAA, he’s a bit of a sleeper; he’s been gradually improving and had a 2.48 ERA in AA Arkansas, with an excellent 129 strikeouts to 35 walks in 156.1 innings. At the least he gives the Angels some depth in AAA along with Trevor Bell. Pena’s got a bit more upside but also a lower floor if he doesn’t put everything together. He struck out 180 batters last year in 151.2 A+ innings, but also walked 81 in that time, compiling a 4.45 ERA. He’ll be 23 next year and should start the season in AA but could move up quickly if his control improves.

A couple others worth mentioning: Trevor Reckling, who was perhaps the best Angels pitching prospect a couple years ago but has stagnated in AA, and Eddie McKiernan who is trying with mixed results to transition to the rotation from the bullpen. Max Russell, AJ Schugel, Ryan Crowley, and Logan Odom are also worth nothing.

All in all, the Angels have a wealth of pitching prospects, both starters and relievers (see next installation), and should be stocked for years to come.
Love to hear what you think!

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